Murdering skeins is a bit of a hobby of mine. I’m not sure where I developed quite such an aptitude for transforming beautiful bundles of fibre into Eldritch horrors of the knitted world but it’s about the least useful skill a crafter can have.
Sometimes it has been clumsiness or underestimating quite what a disastrous effect travelling can have on your supplies. Sometimes it has been my notorious impatience with wanting to dive into a new project. Other times, I swear I simply turn my back and when I turn around, I’m greeted with a sight that invokes the more colourful regions of the English language.
Sod’s Law for Crafters says that, no matter how big your stash, you still will never have the right material for the project at hand. Having recently started weaving, that saying is more true than ever. All of my non-acrylic yarns are committed to projects and I don’t have quite the volume of silk I’d need for a decent sized warp.
That meant it was time to indulge myself in a bit of ‘necessity’ shopping. Shopping for weaving threads is quite an experience, particularly as a UK resident. ‘wc’, ‘nm’, ‘cc’ are all units you might see, as well as various fractions, weight per length and often, a complete absence of any useful information.
When it comes to colours, I like a palate that could be described as ‘bright and bold’ or, if you were feeling less complimentary, lurid. Typically, I use acid dyes for silk and wool, partly out of habit, partly because I don’t generally spin plant fibres, so haven’t needed to dye them. However, I’ve had a few people now say that if you want the boldest, brightest colours for silks, then it’s Procion MX dyes you need to use.
Procion MX dyes are a type of fibre reactive dye and as they are out of patent, a lot of different manufacturers now make them. There are a few kinds of Procion dyes, but the MX part of the name refers to the cold reactive dyes that are ideal for dyeing silks, cottons and even wood. Probably the biggest distinction between them and acid dyes is that with Procion MX dyes, you don’t need to heat the dye to get it to fix. You also generally dye at alkaline pHs with them too. (It is possible to use them at acidic pHs on silk but that’s not what I’ll be worrying about here.)
New dyes means new stock solutions, so I started by making up about 5 % dye solutions in a range of different colours. One advantage of acid dyes is they keep very well so you can make up your stock solutions and keep them hanging around in a cupboard until you next need them. Procion MX dyes are not so stable; if you don’t add any acid/alkaline to them, the solutions will last about a week but as soon as you add the soda ash, the dyes start to react much more quickly and will only last a few hours.
The stereotypical, historical image of the embroiderer is a refined young lady, sat at her frame, serenely rearranging threads to make beautiful artwork. The work is delicate, yet meticulously done, with no lapses in patience or temperament, all whilst wearing her Sunday best.
The reality of the crafter is distinctly less dignified. Dye up the kitchen walls, fridge and floor, needles in fingers and blood pooling on your whitework. Swearing. Frayed threads, wonky cutting and holes in places they were supposed to go. More swearing. Half-done projects abandoned to the back of cupboard, claims of never making a stitch again and of course, lots more swearing.
I think the myth of making things always being fun and relaxing is actually one of the things beginners can find off-putting. Unless you know how many hours of practice and learning it really takes to produce a fantastic piece, it can be really disheartening to have spent hours struggling with seams only to find you haven’t caught the raw edges properly or inconsistencies in your tension when knitting have resulted in a scarf that best resembles jelly.
For the most part, I really do love creating new projects. Daydreaming about colours, calculating up seam allowances, finally getting stuck in with the stitching. However, there are some projects that just seem to go wrong at every corner and the only joys in finishing the thing so you don’t have to look at it again.
After the exciting delivery of some new Kemtex colours and picking up some new ideas at Wonderwool, I have been eagerly awaiting the chance to dye some more silk. I normally paint the silk in a relatively random fashion but I wanted to try something a little more sensible and to have a go at making some colour gradients.
I spent the morning remaking all my old dye stock solutions and making up my new colours as well. Previously, I had been using white vinegar as my fixing agent but I wanted to try using citric acid and adding some urea. The purpose of urea is to increase the solubility of the dyes (therefore allowing you to make higher concentrations) for brighter, more intense colours as well as helping to keep the fibre moist, particularly during the fixing stage.
It was while making up the dye stock solutions that I made a mistake I wouldn’t realise until much later… I made up approximately 5 % dye solutions, added the citric acid and the same amount of what I thought was urea, as recommended in the Kemtex instructions. I’ve heard a lot of people saying they use 2 % concentration dyes for painting and 1 % for immersion dyeing but I have never found concentrations that low give me quite the colour I wanted, hence the higher concentrations.
Counterintuitively enough, most chemical dyes are actually not very water soluble. Certain dyes, Kemtex Black for example, are notorious for being difficult to fully dissolve. This is problematic because unless you want to start filtering your solutions, undissolved dye means you have no idea what the concentration of your solution is and makes it difficult to get predictable, repeatable results as well. I’ll talk a bit more about the chemistry of all this later but back to playing with colour…
I gave the silk a rinse in cool water before I left it to soak overnight in water with a lot of citric acid added. The silk I have isn’t pre-treated and the previous batches have been really clean so I didn’t worry about scouring it thoroughly. I made sure the silk was relatively dry before I start applying the dye, as I didn’t want any additional dilution of the dyes.
After the poor results with the black from my last set of silk dyeing, I was keen to see if the combination of citric acid and more concentrated solutions would fix this, so I started with some pure black in the corner trying to work through dark to light purples before going to magenta/pink at the end.
My handpainted silks are finally dry! As you can see from comparison to the photos from the other post, some of the colours, particularly ones I’ve mixed myself, aren’t as intense as they were when the silk was still wet. However, some sections, particularly the red and green/yellow silks have come out with exactly the kind of colour saturation and intensity I was looking for. Lots of dye and aggressive mashing of the fibres seems to be the trick with handpainting. Thinning down the top beforehand did help but made it more difficult to handle, so I’m not sure it was worth it on reflection.
In general, I didn’t lose too much dye in the rising process but the turquoise sections took significantly more rinsing than any other colour. It’s remained a nice, saturated colour but I’m not sure if there’s something about that particular dye that meant it didn’t fix as well or maybe needed more vinegar in those areas.
This Christmas, I treated myself to a rather sizeable delivery from World of Wool, including over half a kilo of lovely, mulberry silk. Unfortunately, I’ve not had much time to do much other than admire the packet but this weekend I fancied doing something a little less regimented than needlework and thought I’d have a go at some yarn painting.
One issue I’ve had with some of the yarn painting I’ve done is that the colours don’t always look as saturated or intense when the yarn is dry as they do during the dyeing process. I dyed the silk below using mostly greens with some black and mid-blues mixed in as well. Apparently adding a few drops of black can help the colours look more intense.